The Maze Runner (Movie Edition)

mazeThere are a handful of movies that I enjoy more than the books. I know that sounds sacrilegious because the books are always supposed to be better, but in reality that is not true. Sometimes, movies are an opportunity to fix plot or characters problems in the book. Like the ending of The Painted Veil, or how annoying Katniss is in The Hunger Games. Or, in this case, the ineffective writing of The Maze Runner.

You can read my summary and review of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner here, but to recap: the concept is good, the execution of the concept, not so much. The writing isn’t that impressive, and the narrator is kind of annoying, but a movie can fix that with better writing and good actors, and that’s what the people behind The Maze Runner movie did.

Some stories lend themselves more naturally to movies than to books, if the story is very visual or action packed, for example. I think The Maze Runner played out much better on screen. You have a visualization of the strange creatures known as Grievers, you can better feel the tension between the group of boys, you’re out of Thomas’ head (thank God) and can get into the drama of the story’s events better. But what really carried this movie was the acting of the boys.

(From L to R) Lee, O'Brien, and Brodie-Sangster

(From L to R) Lee, O’Brien, and Brodie-Sangster

Dylan O’Brien stars as Thomas, the protagonist who wakes up in a place called the Glade, the safe haven in the middle of the Maze. He doesn’t remember who is he or where he came from, but he has a strong desire to find a way out of the maze. And he has the courage and wits to figure it out. I think O’Brien is an incredible actor (if you don’t believe me, watch his performance as Stiles on MTV’s Teenwolf, he’s amazing) and he makes Thomas so much more likeable than in the book.

The other stars are Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays the second in command Newt. Besides being adorable with his British accent, he also gave a stellar performance. As did Will Poulter, who played the bully/bad guy among the boys. (Think Jack, in Lord of the Flies.) Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, and Blake Cooper also did a great job in their roles as Alby, Mihno, and Chuck, respectively. Honestly, the most lack luster performance probably came from the girl Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario. Though her first real scene was entertaining, she didn’t really have much to go on after that and the movie could have functioned without her character at all, though that isn’t the actresses’ fault. The author and producers probably thought the story needed some estrogen in it. (Though the dynamics happening between the boys were interesting enough, so I don’t agree.)

The boys were the best part of that movie. The actors really came into their characters, and good performances like that are what invest an audience in the story. I felt way more invested in the movie than I did the book because the Dylan O’Brien and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (my two favorite) make you care about the characters and what happens to them. That’s the job of the actors. And they did it well. They made The Maze Runner a movie worth watching.

All the boys.

All the boys.

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The Maze Runner

The_Maze_Runner_coverAs you may have noticed if you’ve gone into a library or a bookstore and perused the Young Adult section, there is no shortage of dystopian fiction. Divergent by Veronica Roth, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, Legend by Marie Lu, and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi are some of the ones these bloggers have read, but there many more out there. And due to popular trends, many of these dystopian novels are getting the silver screen treatment. One of these books is The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

The Maze Runner is about a boy named Thomas who wakes up in a strange place called the Glade. It’s enclosed by giant stone walls and filled with boys of various friendliness. The boys live in the Glade, all working different positions, like the “runners”. The runners go out each day beyond the walls where a large maze encompasses the area. The walls change every day, so the runners are charged with mapping it out each day so they can try to find a way out of this place. The dangerous part is the Grievers, spiderlike creatures that like to kill. The mysterious part is that the boys can’t remember anything from their lives before they came to the Glade and they don’t know who put them there. All they know is that they want out.

James Dashner

James Dashner

Then a girl shows up, and she seems to know Thomas. Thomas feels like he knows her, but he’s still in the dark. But now he knows that their time in the Glade is limited and they need to get out now.

There are some good elements about The Maze Runner. There’s a Lord of the Flies feel to the dynamics of the boys. The whole point of the dystopian genre is to comment on society, and Dashner manages to make a small comment on society through the group of boys. But even though the concept is interesting, this was not my favorite dystopian novel. The writing can be off-putting, and the central characters are undeveloped. It’s the kind of book that fills the space if you’re on a dystopian binge and reading everything you can get your hands on. But if you’re a more discerning reader, take a pass on this one and try another book. There are lots of dystopian novels out there, and most of them are probably better than this one.

But, despite the book’s weaknesses, the movie, which comes out later this month, promises to be rather exciting. Dylan O’Brien (of MTV’s Teen Wolf) heads up the cast as Thomas, starring alongside Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually, Game of Thrones) and Will Poulter (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). This cast of young but talented boys, with Kaya Scoldelario as the girl Teresa, are a promising lead on the movie. So hopefully it will be good!

Dylan O'Brien from the movie adaptation.

Dylan O’Brien from the movie adaptation.

Ship Breaker

ImageThe New York Times Best Seller list used to be a good place to get book recommendations. Though now books like Fifty Shades of Gray make that list so it isn’t exactly reliable anymore. But the Michael L. Printz Award, or just Printz award, is still a guarantee for a good read, so if you’re ever fishing for book recommendations, simply scroll through the list of winners. When you hit the year 2011, you’ll see the book Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Ship Breaker is a young adult novel, and while it is dystopian, it is very different than the current popular strain of young adult dystopian novels. There is no love triangle. There is hardly a love duo. The dystopian setting has a very different feeling than Marie Lu’s series, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The story takes place in a futuristic America, around the Gulf of Mexico to be specific. Like many dystopian novels, society in Ship Breaker is divided sharply into the haves and the have-nots. The have nots are dirt poor and mostly work as scavengers, tearing apart old ships for scrap metal.

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Paolo Bacigalupi

One of these scavengers is a fifteen-year-old boy named Nailer. I know nowadays male protagonists in dystopian young adult fiction, or any young adult fiction really, is rare, so this alone is a breath of fresh air. Nailer lives the hard live of a ship breaker, working a dangerous job and living with an abusive father. Once in a while he dreams about making it out, but the only way to do that is to get lucky and find a preserved store of oil, and the chances of that happening is one in a million. But then Nailer gets his break. He finds a ship washed up on the shore after the shore. At first, the ship seems to be the lucky find, but a survivor in the wreckage of the ship’s cabin proves to be even more valuable.

Nita is one of the haves. She belongs to a rich and powerful business family, and Nailer soon realizes that she is worth more alive than dead. She is his ticket of his life of poverty and away from his abusive father. But returning Nita to her family becomes more and more difficult as Nailer’s father and enemies within Nita’s own family come after the pair.

Bacigalupi’s world is well built and different than other dystopian worlds you may have read about. And even more differently, Ship Breaker is a “boy” book. Not that girls won’t like it—after all, Emily and I both liked it—but being a “boy” book shifts the focus of the story. Bacigalupi doesn’t waste time with a love triangle or girlish day dreaming about love—no offense Katniss or Bella. Bacigalupi spends his time world building, presenting a gritty depiction of poverty and the depravity of human nature. He also explores themes like trust, loyalty, prejudice, the social gap, and many other nonromantic ideas. The focus of the book is on action, not relationships, though it doesn’t sacrifice character or relational development.

For readers who enjoy dystopian novels but are looking for something a little different than the dystopian books that are popular now, Ship Breaker is a good read. And since it won the Printz award, you can be certain that the writing, characters, and themes are all worth your time.

The Selection

ImageSomeone described Kiera Cass’ novel The Selection to me as The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games, and that description is not too far off. The Selection takes place in a dystopian future where the country that used to be America, essentially, is ruled by a king. Society is organized into caste systems, numbered one through eight, with ‘ones’ being the royal family, ‘twos’ being rich families, and each caste working down the social ladder from musicians to teachers to construction workers until you get to the ‘eights’, or the lowest members of societies. As you might expect in a dystopian world, you can’t marry, or really even associate, with members of different castes and so society is left with this rigid system that leaves many people poor, hungry, and dissatisfied with their lot in life.

The monarchy is hereditary, so the king’s son Maxon will inherit the throne, but the process for finding Maxon’s wife the future princess and queen is another matter entirely. This process is called “the selection”, and girls are chosen from different castes and are sent to live at the palace. The prince spends time with each of them, and based on his own feelings plus the opinions of society, his parents, and the benefits each girl brings to the relationship, he sends girls home until only one is left and he marries her. Like on The Bachelor.

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Keira Cass

The Hunger Games part of the story comes from the dystopian setting. There are two rebel groups seeking to change society’s structure. The northern rebels want Maxon to remain prince as long as he abolishes the caste system. The southern rebels want to destroy the caste system and the monarchy and essentially bring anarchy and death to the entire country. But despite the political and social unrest that Cass sets up in her series—The Selection, The Elite, and The One—in the end it really ends up reading like The Bachelor without The Hunger Games.

The story centers heavily around a love triangle, much like other popular YA fiction such as Twilight or The Hunger Games. America, a girl from the fifth caste and a musician, is in love with Aspen, someone from a lower caste than she is. They plan to get married, but when America has the chance to join the selection, Aspen dumps her and America goes to the palace to compete for the heart of the prince. As you might expect from a typical YA heroine, America has no interest in the frivolous spectacle of the selection or in winning the prince’s heart. She really just wants to go home, but her blunt matters and honest speech catch the prince’s attention. But then Aspen is drafted into the army and becomes a guard at the palace. Let the love triangle between the prince, the guard, and the girl ensue for three more books.

Like most love triangles—cough, Twilight and The Hunger Games—it is quite obvious whom America is going to choose at the end. Like many television shows—cough, Bones—by the third book it feels like Cass is dragging out the “who will she choose” storyline when she really should have ended the love triangle by now. Three books is too long to drag out the love triangle without developing it into anything more. Though I will say, she ends it much better than other love triangles—cough, The Hunger Games.

ImageAnd while she’s busy dragging out the drama of the love triangle, Cass misses the opportunity to build up the political drama of the rebellions going on. Throughout the series, rebels attack the palace, but that’s all that happens. There’s no showdown, no decisive victory one way or the other. In the end, there’s really no rising action, climax, or resolution for that side of the novel. Cass leaves it undeveloped when it had a lot of potential and would have strengthened the book immensely.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed all three books in the series. Call me shallow but I do enjoy a book about relationship drama, and the characters are endearing. But the books would have been much stronger and more meaningful if Cass had spent less time on the love triangle and more time on the political drama. Still, if you enjoyed books like Twilight and The Hunger Games, or if you are an avid viewer of The Bachelor, you will enjoy this book.

For books with dramatic relationships AND political intrigue, check out:

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

and

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

A New Take On An Old Fairytale

ImageEver After, A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted. The list of Cinderella adaptations in books and films is seemingly endless. Fewer fairy tales have received so many renderings that I wonder if anything original can be done to the story about the servant girl turned princess. Of course, as often happens, I was wrong. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a completely new and original take on the Cinderella story, and a quite enjoyable one at that.

In this retelling of the fairytale, which takes place in the future, Cinder is still the stepdaughter forced to do hard work to support the stepmother who hates her. This time, though, Cinder is not just the stepdaughter, she’s also a cyborg. After suffering a terrible accident as a child, parts of Cinder’s body were replaced with mechanical parts. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered a second-class citizen in her hometown of New Beijing, but she is a first rate mechanic. This is how she meets Kai, the prince of the kingdom. Kai comes to Cinder hoping she can fix his android, which he jokingly tells her contains important information to the security of the country.

Fixing the prince’s android isn’t the only thing on Cinder’s mind, however. There’s also a plague raging through New Beijing, and after it infects Cinder’s nice stepsister, Cinder becomes involved with a doctor trying cure the disease. This takes Cinder to the palace, where she repeatedly runs into Prince Kai, who must deal with his own troubles. With his father ailing quickly, Kai faces a difficult threat coming from the Lunar people, a country inhabiting the moon where the people possess magical powers.

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Marissa Meyer

Okay, so that sounds a little odd. A cyborg Cinderella and strange moon people with magical powers. It is a little odd, but Meyer weaves traditional aspects into the story—the mean stepsister, the cruel stepmother, the ball, the glass slipper—while interpreting these aspects in an original way to fit her story. Meyer also adds in a mystery surrounding the Lunar princess to the midst of the story to keep it exciting and moving forward.

Any lover of fairy tales will enjoy this new adaptation of the Cinderella story, and readers who like fantasy or sci fi books will enjoy this novel. It is dystopian without the dystopian setting being the center of attention. The world is different and futuristic, but at the same time modern. Cinder deals with being an outcast in society, not to mention dealing with saving the people she loves and falling in love herself. Cinderella is a timeless tale that can thrive in any setting, and it flourishes in Meyer’s novel. Cinder is not a groundbreaking book, but it is a very enjoyable read. Audiences will fall in love with Cinder and relish the new interpretations of the traditional aspects of the Cinderella story. Just as Cinderella transcended from a mere servant to a beautiful princess, Cinder rises as a great futuristic interpretation of a very old fairy tale.

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If you enjoyed Cinder, check out the next two books in the series: Scarlet and Cress.

Allegiant

ImageI was 66 on the wait list at my local library for Veronica Roth’s third and final book in her Divergent series—Allegiant. But it was definitely worth the wait. Third books in trilogies make me nervous. They’re supposed to be the climax of the series, be bigger than the previous two books, and wrap up the story to give the reader closure and a sense of fulfillment. That’s a tall order, and often books fall short of pulling this off. I don’t think many people were pleased with the third Hunger Games book. The third Twilight book was the worst in the series, in my opinion. I approached Allegiant with trepidation. Veronica Roth had set herself up for an epic conclusion, but that also gave her high standards to achieve. Would she do it? Would Allegiant be all I hoped it would be? The quick answer is yes.

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Veronica Roth

To be perfectly honest, though I liked and enjoyed Divergent, a lot of the book annoyed me. It frustrated me that characters clung to their factions’ singular characteristics, like Dauntless was so into being fearless that they were not compassionate. I realize that this is one of the points Veronica Roth was trying to make—that to be too brave or too smart or too honest at the expense of kindness and compassion is a bad thing, and we should strive, as Tobias of the upcoming Divergent movie puts it, “I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest, and kind.” But I found it difficult to read about characters who turned their backs on other people and left them for dead or to be cast out with the factionless. But I still found many good things in Divergent, so I read the second book, Insurgent. Insurgent, in my opinion, was better than Divergent. The characters started to realize that they shouldn’t sacrifice their compassion in order to succeed in their faction. Roth was also starting to really broaden the story, delving into questions about human nature, human relationships, government, morality, and all that good stuff. And then at the end of Insurgent, Roth laid the foundation for an epic third book.

Allegiant did not disappoint. Allegiant expanded on the themes Roth introduced earlier in the series, asking deep questions about human nature. She examines both the good and the evil found in each person, and is both optimistic and realistic about what she finds. Roth also develops her characters, making them grow as individuals and together in their relationships. Roth expands the scope of her book beyond the characters and beyond the city of Divergent. She looks at human nature itself and the world at large, successfully making Allegiant bigger than its two predecessors.

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Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) in the upcoming Divergent movie.

There is enough action in Allegiant to make it a climatic end to Roth’s Divergent series. She also expands the story and the themes to be bigger than her first two books, making Allegiant epic and climatic. Readers get closure with a powerful and moving ending that is very well written. And most importantly, after so much conflict and hardship and struggle for her characters, Roth offers redemption in. After everything characters have been through, especially in dystopian stories, the author must offer something to give the characters and readers hope—to know that this was not all for nothing, that they will go on, that at the end of the story there is hope. Veronica Roth does that extraordinarily well.

Now that Divergent is behind her, it will be very interesting to see what Veronica Roth writes next. Though, for those of us unable to let go and move on from the Divergent trilogy, the movie Divergent is coming soon.

Another (Enjoyable) Dystopian Book

Dystopian setting. Badass fighting heroine. Love triangle. I just described the entire Young Adult Fiction shelf at the library/bookstore, didn’t I? Okay, so there may be nothing incredibly original about Marie Lu’s popular trilogy—Legend, Prodigy, and Champion—but that doesn’t mean that Legend, and it’s subsequent books, isn’t enjoyable.

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Marie Lu

Legend takes place in a dystopian future where the United States is split into the Republic (i.e. the West Coast basically) and the Colonies (the East Coast). The Republic is ruled by an Elector and a Senate, with the Elector holding most of the power through a powerful military. Children, when they come of age, undergo a series of tests known as “trials”. These trials allegedly determine their aptitude and therefore their social status. For some people, like the female protagonist June, this isn’t a bad thing. June comes from a wealthy family who lives in a sanitary and safe district. She aced her trials, which landed her a premium spot at one of the Republic’s universities, and she has a promising career ahead of her.

Day, the male protagonist of the story, is the opposite of June. He comes from a family in a poor district, where disease and crime abound. He failed his trials, and narrowly escaped being killed because of it. Now he’s a criminal, a rather famous one, trying to support his mother and two other brothers. Though his background is very different from June, he soon finds that they have more in common than they realize when the death of June’s brother and only living family member throws them together. The Republic tasks June, it’s star prodigy, with tracking down Day, the Republic’s most infamous criminal, whom June believes is responsible for her brother’s death. But once June tracks down Day and spends some time away from her sheltered view of her country, she starts to realize that the Republic may not be all that it seems. Now in doubt of whom she can trust, June sets out to find the truth about her government, her brother’s death, and the criminal she’s becoming increasingly fond of.

ImageDystopian novels are all the range in the Young Adult genre, and not without reason. Dystopian settings provide a unique canvas for examining questions about governments, societies, and morality. Lu’s interpretation of a possible future for America is very interesting, with the East and West of the country divided, society divided into poor and rich sections, much like in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Like many Dystopian novels, the government is portrayed as untrustworthy, an oppressive “Big Brother” entity. But even though this context is not an original setting for a story, Lu’s characters thrive in the story she’s given them. June and Day are typical YA characters, but their story is enjoyable. And, when the reader gets to the end of Prodigy and into Champion, Marie Lu will throw her readers an unexpected curveball in dystopian fiction—the characters are going to support the government instead of overthrow it!

Reform, not revolution. That is the most original aspect of Marie Lu’s trilogy. I recently finished the third and final book of the trilogy, and I quite enjoyed it. Lu’s characters are well-rounded and very human. They make mistakes, they fight for the people they love, etc. Lu asks interesting questions about how to structure societies, choosing the lesser of two evils, the benefits of reform over revolution. And the story is engaging. This isn’t a groundbreaking book series, but it is very enjoyable, especially for readers who are enjoying the current popularity of dystopian fiction.

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